NEW YORK -- The NFL is officially in a work stoppage after the league announced a lock out of the players following the union's decision on Friday to decertify in the wake of failed labour negotiations.
The NFL Players' Association opted to break up and file for decertification on Friday afternoon, opening the door for players to file antitrust lawsuits against the league -- which they did.
High-profile quarterbacks Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees were among the plaintiffs in litigation filed against the NFL and all 32 of its teams.
The league then instituted a lockout of the players, marking the first work stoppage since 1987.
"The union's abandonment of bargaining has forced the clubs to take action they very much wanted to avoid," the NFL said in its statement early Saturday morning. "At the recommendation of the Management Council Executive Committee under the authority it has been delegated by the clubs, the league has informed the union that it is taking the difficult but necessary step of exercising its right under federal labour law to impose a lockout of the union.
"The clubs believe that this step is the most effective way to accelerate efforts to reach a new agreement without disruption to the 2011 season," the statement continued. "The clubs want to continue negotiating intensively to reach a fair agreement as soon as possible. Our goal is finding common ground and resolving the issues with the union. That is why we ask the union to resume negotiations with the federal mediator. The negative consequences for the players and clubs will continue to escalate the longer it takes to reach an agreement."
Friday's developments came only after 17 days of negotiations and two separate extensions of the original collective bargaining agreement that pushed back the original deadline of March 4.
Federal mediator George Cohen said Friday a consensus emerged on a number of issues and differences were narrowed in others.
"Regrettably, however, the parties have not achieved an overall agreement nor have they been able to resolve, at this time, strongly-held competing views that separate them on core issues," Cohen said.
In a statement Friday, the union said it had "renounced its status as the exclusive collective bargaining representative" of NFL players and was moving forward as a professional trade association supporting the interests of current and former players.
Competing releases were issued Friday by both sides, detailing disagreements between the union and ownership.
The NFL said in a statement that players "left a very good deal on the table," while the players claimed they offered repeatedly to continue working under the current CBA but were rejected by the league five times.
"The union has insisted on a continuation of an unsustainable status quo rather than agreeing to reasonable adjustments that reflect new economic realities we all have experienced," the league's Saturday statement read. "The status quo would also mean no improvements for retired players, too much money to a handful of rookies, and no changes to improve our drug programs."
Meanwhile, papers for antitrust litigation against the NFL and its teams were filed Friday in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis, where a judge had ruled in the union's favour in a previous dispute over TV revenues.
In addition to Brady, Manning and Brees, six other NFL players were named as plaintiffs as well as former Texas A&M linebacker Von Miller.
Commissioner Roger Goodell, who attended every mediation session, wrote a letter to NFL fans on Friday saying the league was disappointed by the union's actions and committed to collective bargaining.
The players were offered "a deal where everyone would prosper," Goodell said in the letter.
The last sticking point came when union head DeMaurice Smith said players wanted 10 years of audited financial records by Friday's 5 p.m. deadline. Lead NFL negotiator Jeff Pash said owners offered to release five years of financials and the union opted not to take them.
"The union was offered financial disclosure of audited league and club profitability information that is not even shared with the NFL clubs," the league said in its Friday release.
The sides met at 4 p.m. Friday for a last-ditch effort at a solution. Owners were annoyed to find that the union had notified the NFL of its plans to decertify at the same time, Pash said.
Giants owner John Mara, in a terse appearance in front of reporters, said he thinks players believed decertification gives them the best leverage and that they were never serious in negotiating.
"And unfortunately that's what collective bargaining is about," Mara said.
The two sides have been meeting to resolve issues centering around how the owners and players should divide about $9 billion in annual revenues. A rookie wage scale, regular season expansion and benefits for retired players are also some of the unresolved differences.
The NFL offered to retain the current format of 16 regular season games and four pre-season contests for at least two years and not to implement an 18- game schedule without approval from the union.
Among the other things offered by the NFL in its proposal:
- To reallocate money saved from a first-round rookie salary cap to veterans and retirees, without affecting players who are drafted in rounds 2-7.
- To guarantee up to $1 million of a player's salary for the contract year after an injury -- the first time teams have offered a standard multi-year injury guarantee.
- To implement changes to promote player health and safety, including reducing the off-season program by five weeks, reducing the number of organized team activities, limiting on-field practice time and contact, limiting full-contact practices in the pre-season and regular season and increasing the number of days off for players.
- To fund with $82 million of the owners' money a "legacy fund" that would increase retirement benefits for players by nearly 60 percent.
- To offer current players the chance to remain on the player medical plan for life.
- To offer third party arbitration for appeals in the drug and steroid program.
- To make improvements in health care plans and degree completion bonus program.
- To accept the union's proposed cap number for 2014 at $161 million per team, and to guarantee each club spends a minimum of 90 percent of the salary cap over three seasons.
"Evidently, not good enough," Pash said of the league's proposal.
In a response, the union said numbers provided by the NFL did not amount to a financial disclosure and that accountants and bankers advised they were meaningless.
Also in the response, the union said:
- The NFL wanted to move player compensation back to where it was in 2007 and offered no proposal for long-term share of revenues.
- The league refused to meet players on significant changes to in-season, off- season or pre-season health and safety rules.
- The league kept its "hypocritical" demand for an 18-game regular season despite saying publicly that it was working toward improving the health and safety of players.
- The league wanted cutbacks in workers' compensation benefits for injured players.
- The league wanted to limit rookie compensation after they are fourth- or fifth-year veterans.
Cohen said that no constructive purpose would be served by asking the owners and players to continue the current mediation, but that he would be willing to facilitate future discussions if the sides asked for them.
The other NFL players named as plaintiffs were Chargers wide receiver Vincent Jackson, Vikings linebacker Ben Leber and defensive end Brian Robison, Patriots offensive lineman Logan Mankins, Giants defensive end Osi Umenyiora and Chiefs linebacker Mike Vrabel.